Tuesday, 2 February 2010

theory, kink, and feminism

I got an interesting comment on my recent post and I thought I should dedicate a post to addressing it, though I strongly suspect that will disappoint the person who made it. Here's the relevant part of the comment:
Trinity, I'm a little confused by your confusion, but I'll try to make my question clearer. The simplest way to put it is exactly the way you do--the question is whether "kink in some way either contributes to or follows from" the oppression of women. (Feel free to substitute "harm", "bad for", or some less jargon-filled word for "oppression".)

I absolutely agree with you that radical feminist rhetoric actually obfuscates things for people genuinely trying to think their way through the question. But to people _genuinely_ trying to think their way through that question, it doesn't render the question moot. The radfems could be completely wrong in their framing of the issue and in their arguments, but still be right in their overall stance on the issue itself--which is why I suggested addressing the question directly rather than as a response to their arguments.

I'm going to use a bit of autobiography here not because I need the question answered--I'm not trying to make this comment thread about me--but as illustrative of questions I have had. When I was first starting out in BDSM I occasionally had ND-like reactions to what I was doing. I recall looking at sites that were only a little more intense than Kink.com with my boyfriend, and being both turned on and horrified. Kink had always been part of my fantasies, but 1) my fantasies were more focused on my pleasure--female pleasure--than I think most porn is; 2) the men in my fantasies were clearly "evil", and so the issue of how to have an ongoing affectionate and consensual relationship with a dominant partner didn't have to get resolved; 3) in my fantasies I didn't have to come to a compromise between what I wanted and what a partner wanted. While I thought being objectified, flogged, blindfolded, and machine-fucked was all fine, I thought getting a facial (just an example of one of my boyfriend's interests) was horrifically degrading. Or anal sex (until I tried it ;) ). And so on.

So I read as much as I could and went on discussion boards where people purported to talk about how they were "feminist" and kinky and asked--over and over again--how to be both. And the answer was always the same: "Blah blah blah if feminism is about anything it's about being able to choose." Which I found woefully inadequate for reasons that are pretty obvious to anyone who's studied political or social theory written after 1800. I found a few answers to these questions at some point, from friends who were neck deep in the LATEST gender theory, but not anywhere else. I thought there might be some of that here.

I stressed about this a lot, and I still sometimes do. Ernest, I take your point that I haven't read the blog from soup to nuts (though I've read a fair amount) and may in doing so find much of what I'm looking for. So if there's a basic post about "how we can use theory to understand kinky sexuality in 2010 as something other than a threat to women" that I'm missing, please send a link. Thank you!
My disappointing answer is that there probably isn't a post of the sort you want, and that the reason there isn't one is precisely because I think using theory to understand kinky sexuality is fundamentally wrongheaded, if not damaging. But before I get into why, please indulge me for a moment while I talk about where I am with these issues.

When I first became a contributor to this blog, several things were going on. First of all, we started it as a way to counter some of the radical feminist rhetoric that was going around, so it was always argumentative around here.

But second, at the time that I was one of the original contributors, I was knee-deep in academia. Theory was part of the air I breathed. I left that kind of life very suddenly, jolted out of the world I knew. These days, I can't believe how different my life is. The intellectual questions that were my bread-and-butter matter very little now that I am dealing with individuals directly. It doesn't really matter why things are the way they are when what I'm trying to do is help one person get one set of results. I don't find theory particularly useful for that, even the sort of theory about social justice that would apparently be relevant.

Along the same lines, my social justice crusading is still very real and very alive, but I'm very suspicious of any theories that seek to change human behavior at its roots. I'm much more likely to be standing in front of the legislature saying "these people are doing this thing which is unjust for these reasons; fix it now!" than I am to be saying something things about the patriarchy, about white supremacy, etc. I just don't find those frameworks useful for real world change any more. I don't believe that focusing on the things I can't see lead to real world change is anything more than intellectual masturbation.

This doesn't necessarily mean that looking at particular behaviors, desires, or ideas through the lens of feminist theory is useless for everyone. It just means that's not where I am, and that's a big part of the reason that I haven't been posting very much at all. You're right: I only find myself doing so lately whether someone to get mad at, precisely because feminist theory strikes me as shockingly irrelevant to actual social change.

Also, my own personal conflicts about my kink are things I pretty much handled for myself years ago, so I don't really have much to say these days about the gnawing feeling that you're doing something wrong, whether that be sinning against your ideology, being violent, or being strange. The more I spent my time outside of theoretical enclaves, the less I worry about that sort of thing. I leave it up to wiser heads than mine whether this means I'm simply rationalizing, or whether it means I'm wise.

But now, from the point of view of someone who used to care about theory, let me talk about its limitations for a moment. I only pray that I'll be intellectual enough in these paragraphs for what I'm saying to seem worthwhile to those more fond of theoretical restructuring than I am these days.

When I was in college and grad school, I studied ethical theory. I still find ethical theory fascinating and, in its own way, useful -- though I hasten to clarify that by saying that I really don't think Kant or Mill often help us decide what to do in an actual dilemma.

The reason I still like ethical theory is because it strikes me as fundamentally asking different questions from "What should we do?" or even "What should we feel is right?" It helps us take the notions of goodness we already have and understand them or categorize them or explain how they work and why they come out the way they do. It tries to tell us why we feel as we do. And of course, as that happens, certain things will come out to be paradigm cases of right conduct or wrong, but the point is not to map morality, but rather to map its structure.

Where feminist theory, as we speak of it when we ask whether kink "is feminist" or even "is compatible with feminism," is something we turn to when we want something prescriptive. The question is "Should I do this?" More than that, the question is (a fundamentally crazy-making, IMO) "If I do this, will I have pernicious motives that I could not accurately detect or assess without the aid of theory?"

And I think that way of using theory is fundamentally ass-backwards from go. Theory systematizes experience. It may help us find meaning in experience by offering us useful ways of categorizing it. But it does not layer meaning into experience. If we require the theory to find the oppressiveness, we're putting what's a layer outward in the center.

I don't dispute that many kinky people have a vague feeling of uneasiness about what we like. That, I think, is an experience that many share. I've had it too. And I think theories around us are one place many of us -- especially young feminists -- turn to make sense of that queasiness.

And I don't want to say that there can't be something to that. That, say, a woman can't ever be attracted to dominant men because she actually feels inferior. I'm sure it's true of someone. Perhaps a lot of someones; that I don't know.

But I think sometimes it becomes easy or comfortable for us to understand the feeling through "analysis," through theory, rather than through taking hard looks at ourselves and our own needs, limitations, strengths, and vulnerabilities.

If I have to pick, the cartoonish characterization of the "choice feminist" ("Do what you want to do; that's all feminists fight for!") wins out for me over the cartoonish characterization of the "radical feminist" ("Do what you want to do, but you're oppressing women, and don't expect me to mollycoddle you") for me. But why? Isn't she shallow and stupid?

Because what even the most shallow "choice feminist" is, deep down, exhorting us to do, whether she knows it or not, is to examine ourselves for ourselves. To seek our own answers. To set aside theory if it becomes the only reason we understand our experiences as different than they seem.

Pulling out a comment

This was buried in the comments in the Respect, Again post and I figured it was best to give it a thread of its own, so here it is:

greenspade said...

First of all, I feel sorry for Orlando. Wish the best for you and your wife.

I've read some comments on ND's blog, only the first ones and last ones though, too many. And I also think they're quite close minded and intolerance.

Aside from that, I have a question, sorry if this is stupid but I'm curious, this is more about the bdsm, do you really have to do it that way? Can't be happy if you're doing it without hurting or humiliating?

I think every human have their own dark sides. I myself is trying to see what my orientation is, and that's why I came across this blog. But maybe not as extreme as stuffs in kink.com. Doesn't feel anything like hatred or disgust, more like amazed, wow these things really exist, but not my things. I guess I just have the mind of a bully. But I do like some, things.

So I'm wondering if you can do it in a more 'loving' ways, because when body's hurt, the pain is the signal sent to warn you, that there are something dangerous. I think putting yourself or your partner in a dangerous condition - lethal or not - is not really good. Just wondering...

Have a nice day...